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Low-Altitude Air Defense-Band Aids Won't Heal The Wound
AUTHOR Major William W. McCombs, USMC
CSC 1985
SUBJECT AREA Warfighting
                        EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
I.  Purpose:  To document our present inability to maintain air super-
iority in a rapidly evolving threat arena and to establish a foundation
upon which a lasting solution may be built.
II. Problem:  Our present air defense system lacks the ability to
detect and engage extremely low-flying attack helicopters and cruise
missiles.  Furthermore, we fail to adequately appreciate the full impact
of this problem as it relates to our ability to conduct sustained MAGTF
operations ashore.
III. Data:  The determined improvement of Soviet attack helicopter tech-
nology over the past decade has resulted in the creation of airborne
"tanks" that are capable of transiting the battlefield at high speed and
extremely low altitude.  Similarly, cruise missiles that hug the terrain
for hundreds of miles and arrive on target with deadly accuracy have
emerged from the drawing tables to become reality.  The flight regime of
these threat platforms prevents detection and makes engagement by exist-
ing weaponry a questionable issue.  The firepower represented by these
weapons, if unchecked, constitutes prohibitive interference to MAGTF op-
erations.  Radar coverage is insufficient to provide timely warning;
existing air defense weapons are lacking in depth and capability; and
progress toward recovery is without direction.
IV.  Conclusions:  We are faced with a threat that requires immediate
recognition.  We have failed to apply ourselves to the creation of long-
term solutions that are needed to regain a reasonable measure of
overhead security.  The combination of "quick fix" measures presently in
work are not functionally compatible and do not represent a coordinated
extension of established doctrine.
V.  Recommendations:  Immediate decisions are needed to determine the
weaponry and detection equipment that is required to regain control of
the low-altitude band.  Accurate inputs must be made to initiate
delivery through an unresponsive procurement cycle, and interim
measures to correct tactical and training deficiencies must be imple-
mented to provide innovative remedies to a growing problem.
Thesis:  Low-altitude air threats(attack helicopters and cruise
missiles) cannot be adequately detected or engaged by our air defense
assets, and we continue to apply "band-aid" remedies to a serious
I.  The matter of air superiority
     A.  Leak in the air umbrella
     B.  Definition of the low-altitude band
     C.  Recognition of the problem
II.  Understanding the threat
     A.  Attack helicopters and associated armament
          1.   MI-24 (Hind)
          2.   MI-8  (Hip)
          3.   MI-28 (Havoc)
          4.   Soviet helicopter employment
     B.  Cruise missiles
          1.   History and development
          2.   Navigation and guidance
          3.   Range and speed
          4.   Flight profile
          5.   Recent engagements
III. The problem of air defense
    A.  Detection
         1.  Heavy ground radars
         2.  Airborne radar
         3.  Lightweight portable radar
    B.  Engagement of targets
         1.    Firepower
         2.    System deficiencies
         3.    Aircraft engagement (fixed-wing)
         4.    Helicopter options
    C.  Doctrinal considerations
IV.  Search for a solution
     A.  Equipment and weapons
     B.  Doctrine and training
     No matter how much energy we apply to the establishment of an air-
tight case for survivability of the Marine Air/Ground Task Force (MAGTF)
in sustained operations ashore, the arguement over our capability to
maintain air superiority always comes to surface as a highly debatable
issue.  JCS Publication I defines air superiority as..."that degree of
dominance in air battle of one force over another which permits the con-
duct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air
forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the
opposing force." (7:21)  Why all the fuss?  Let us proceed under the
doctrinal assumption that is made for us in Landing Force Manual 01:
"Air superiority in the area of operations is a prerequisite for the
success of an amphibious operation." (18:9)  The same logic applies to
sustained operations ashore.  Bottom line--our survivability depends as
much on the achievement and maintenance of air superiority as it does
on the tactical ability of our ground combat elements and combat service
support effort.
     We have analyzed, rationalized, and even fantasized in the cogita-
tion of this ponderous issue.  For the most part, and perhaps out of
wishful thinking, we have convinced ourselves that through the combined
effects of technological and tactical knowhow, available weaponry, and
sheer desire we can create a synergistic force that achieves an accept-
able standard of safety under which we can operate.  As a member of the
fighter aviation community, I want very much to agree with this position,
yet I am uncomfortable.
     Recent quantum leaps in weapons platform capabilities combined with
our good fortune to acquire many of these systems (such as the F/A-18)
bolsters my confidence in our ability to perform our mission against the
toughest odds.  The Marine Corps is truely unique in its  forceable entry
capability--we are a specialized offensive weapon equalled by none.  I
see our vulnerability in the failure to recognize the need for defense.
Defense of our eventual inland disposition against overwhelming odds is
an area of great concern to me as I envision the sustained phases of
operations ashore.  This oversight represents an open wound vulnerable
to enemy infection through the application of air power.
     The leakage that I envision in the air umbrella occurs at low
altitude.  We cannot adequately detect or engage enemy attack helicop-
ters or terrain-hugging cruise missiles with our present air defense
assets.  Furthermore, we are quite frequently using "band-aid" remedied
to deal with a rapidly evolving problem which we fail to fully under-
stand and accept. (1:18)
     An understanding of low altitude as used here is a prerequisite to
grasping the full impact of this problem.  A traditional definition of
low altitude in aviation warfare considers the airspace between 900 and
8000 feet above ground level. (7:214)  The mental picture brought on in
discussion of low altitude in today's military aviation circles is prob-
ably closer to 500 feet and below. (15:36)  The actual segment of air-
space for which I am showing concern exists between impact with the
ground and 100 feet.  As we shall see in this discussion, there are a
growing number of lethal inhabitants of this narrow, threatening alti-
tude band for which we have not yet gained sufficient respect or
understanding.  Keep the picture in your mind that this scant flight
envelope starts at the ground and rises only enough to avoid impact with
low obstacles. (8:14)  Now visualize machines capable of the firepower
of a tank transiting at high speed and engaging friendly ground combat
elements and friendly aviation.  Add unmanned, high-speed cruise missiles
capable of pin-point accuracy from launch positions many miles away.
Hold the image and develop a respect for it.  It is real.  It won't go
away.  Let us now examine this problem more closely.
     First we need to identify and analyze the low-altitude weapons
platforms poised against us.  The next step of our analysis will look
at present air defense systems and the problems created by the existence
of the evolving low-altitude threat.  At this point the appreciation for
our problem should be realized, and the search for lasting solutions
will begin.  Let's get started with a discussion of modern Soviet
attack helicopters.
     First and foremost in the arena of attack helicopters of the world
is the Soviet produced MI-24 (Hind).  "Today, the MI-24 is regarded as
not only an antitank weapon, but capable itself of functioning as a
high speed, nap-of-the-earth 'tank,' and of destroying enemy helicop-
ters in air-to-air combat." (13:93)  The MI-24 is usually observed
escorting troop-transport helicopters in training exercises, but recent
sightings have indicated more independent operation.  The combined punch
of these air-mobile "tanks" with infantry forces poses a lethal threat
to our ground combat elements.
     The armament of the Hind-D consists of a 12.7mm four-barrel, chin-
mounted, rotary gun; four 32-round packs of 57mm or four 20-round packs
of 8Omm unguided rockets; and four AT-2 Swatter antitank,guided missiles.
The latest version, Hind-E, upgrades this already impressive package
with the implementation of four AT-6 Sprial antitank missiles and car-
riage for two 500 kilogram and two 250 kilogram bombs.  These aircraft
are capable of speeds in the vicinity of 340 kilometers per hour, can
carry eight combat troops, and possess heavy armor and decoy flares for
self-protection. (13:94)
     Basic data on AT-2(Swatter) and AT-6(Spiral) antitank missiles
is shown below (13:94):
Click here to view image
     Although not specifically an attack helicopter, the MI-8 (Hip) is
still the world's most heavily armed helicopter.  With 12.7mm machine
guns, 192 57mm rockets, AT-2 Swatter or AT-3 Sagger antitank guided
missiles, this troop transport ship (up to 24 combat troops) delivers
a substantial blow in its own defense.  Powerful and rugged, the MI-8
can achieve a respectable speed of 250 kilometers per hour. (13:93)
     A newly emerging threat helicopter is the MI-28 (Havoc).  A heavily
armed, survivability intensive airframe, this machine is envisioned to
be a double threat with emphasis on air-to-air/anti-helicopter employ-
ment. (5:28)  Its primary weapon is the SA-14 air-to-air adapted missile,
which is a near copy of our Stinger air defense missile.  With a range
of 300-6000 meters and infra-red (head-on capable) guidance, this mis-
sile poses a viable threat to both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
The MI-28 will be a true hunter with respectable speed (300kph), range
(240 km radius), and payload (16 missiles).  Advanced avionics such as
forward-looking infra-red radar (FLIR), pulse radar, and redundant on-
board navigation systems will enable this craft to far exceed the cap-
abilities of any helicopter known to date. (5:33-34)
     What are Soviet helicopter employment priorities?  Approximately
ten years ago Soviet Colonel General Mishuk prioritized future object-
ives for Soviet air combat forces as (5:28):
         1.   Combatting tanks with helicopters
         2.   Combatting enemy close-support aircraft and
              helicopters over the battlefield
         3.   Intercepting and shooting down fast and low-
              flying aircraft and cruise missiles
         4.   Battlefield reconnaissance
         5.   Attacking point targets on the battlefield
     These priorities clearly demonstrate the Soviet recognition of low-
altitude vulnerability in both offensive and defensive air operations.
They have spent the last ten or more years engineering to close their
wound and irritate ours.  The Soviet doctrinal evolution has seen the
advantage of giving army commanders their own (decentralized) helicop-
ter assets.  Attack hilicopters are utilized in Ground-Air Raiding
Forces(GARFs) in order to produce synergistic shock with the combined
hitting power of mechanized infantry, artillery, and tanks. (11:333)
     Consider the definition of air superiority.  Is this not a threat
that could produce prohibitive interference?  Soviet flight training for
helicopter pilots stresses nap-of-the-earth maneuvering, and helicopter
design reflects the rugged construction required to support high loads
associated with this type of operation.  There is no doubt that Soviet
battlefield strategy intends to peel back our air defense from the
bottom up while inflicting heavy casualties on our ground combat ele-
ments from the same vulnerable opening. (1:16)  We will delay addressing
how we intend to combat these weapons until the cruise missile threat
has been evaluated.
     What is a cruise missile?  Cruise missiles are small, pilotless,
subsonic jet airplanes carrying nuclear or conventional warheads.  The
first cruise missile, the German V-1 "buzz bomb," was no more than a
winged bomb propelled by a crude jet engine.  However ingenious, the
buzz bomb was more of a nuisance than a useful military weapon.
     Nuclear armed cruise missiles entered the arsenals of the United
States and Soviet Union in the 1950's.  We produced small numbers of the
sea-launched Snark and air-launched Regulus cruise missiles in response
to a perceived "bomber gap."  These missiles were large, unreliable, and
inaccurate which led to their abandonment.  The Soviets, however, saw
the cruise missile as a possible remedy for their lack of aircraft
carriers.  They continued to develop short-range cruise missiles for use
against ships. (8:14)
     The revival of our current long-range cruise missile is the result
of technological advances which have made the concept highly practical.
Extremely accurate terrain maps have been made possible by the advent of
satellites which study the Earth's surface.  Microcircuits permit small,
digitized guidance systems to utilize these computer-loaded terrain maps.
Highly efficient, compact jet engines offer greater range and savings on
missile size.
     The cruise missile's great accuracy results from a new guidance
technique called terrain contour matching (TERCOM).  The system consists
of a radar altimeter and a miniture computer.  Stored in the computer
are digitized relief maps of the terrain that the missile must fly over
in order to reach its target.  In flight, the missile periodically
measures the ground below, and the computer compares the result with
stored terrain maps, making course changed as required.  Between terrain
comparisons an inertial guidance system keeps the missile on course. In
theory, the missile becomes more accurate as it proceeds down range on
its 700 to 1500 mile flight. (4:2)
     These missiles can guide to within 100 yards of a known point with
a 200 kiloton nuclear warhead.  They can also deliver a 1000 pound con-
ventional warhead with pin-point accuracy when aided by television-
operated terminal homing systems.  Their speed is usually about 400
knots, and their operating altitude is commonly below 200 feet.
     Today, the cruise missile is usually about 20 feet long, can be
launched from air, land, or sea, and represents an overwhelming challenge
to air defense detection and engagement agencies.  It is feared that the
nuclear capability of these missiles will produce sufficient motivation
to trigger a race for the "unstoppable" cruise missile.  With its small
size, reasonable speed, low-altitude profile, and "stealth" technology
loose on the world scene, we appear to be almost to that point. (4:4)
     To help us appreciate the reality of the threat, let's look at some
actual examples of less sophisticated, yet deadly cruise missile engage-
ments of military targets at sea.  "On May 4, 1982, a single Exocet
missile fired from an Argentinian Navy Super Entendard jet hit and de-
stroyed the British Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Sheffield." (14:49)  The
Israeli destroyer Eilat was put to the bottom by two Soviet-built Styx
missiles in 1967 from twelve miles away.  These are the beginnings of
low-altitude missile engagements yet to come. (14:49)  These events
caused the United States Navy great concern, and closer evaluations of
this threat has resulted in rapid development and outfitting of ships
with point-defense weapon systems.  That was the tip of the iceberg,
but at least it has been recognized and dealt with.  The threat at sea
has become more sophisticated and it is coming ashore to threaten us
     The problems incurred by our air defense system in dealing with the
described threat platforms share a common thread.  The common factor
is detection.  We simply can't see low-altitude targets with our current
equipment.  In order to employ our weapons against enemy air threats,
we must first be able to detect their presence.  A realistic detection
range of an air target at 500 feet is between three and nine miles,
depending on the amount of ground clutter present. (15:37)  Only our
newest fighter aircraft, the F/A-18, can detect and close with these
low targets in a timely manner.  If we employ our fighters close-in,
however, we will effectively shut down our Hawk missile defenses during
that period due to the "confusion" of overhead airspace and at the addi-
tional cost of excessive aircraft utilization. (19:55-56)
     In order to satisfy the first principle of air defense, defense
in depth, we need a means of organic early warning.  Existing platforms
include the Air Force E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)
and the Navy E-2C Hawkeye.  These systems with over-the-horizon capabil-
ity and clutter-reject features can give us the 15O-mile "eyeball" on
the battlefield. (15:37)  We very well may be fortunate enough to tie
into the capabilities of these aircraft in most instances.  My concern
is for the growing number of instances when the Marine Corps is put
into increasingly sophisticated environments as lead element or as the
sole combatant.
     Some improvements in detection of targets may be gained by employ-
ment of Lightweight Early Warning Radar (LEWR).  A man-portable system,
it may provide augmentations of the air defense network along likely
avenues of approach which were otherwise masked by terrain. (16:32).
A similar system designed by the Israelis is being seriously consider-
ed by the Marine Corps.  Known simply as Tactical Defense Alert Radar
(TDAR), the system provides "gap filling" early warning at low alti-
tudes out to a range of 20 kilometers.  The man-portable (170 lb.)
system is highly mobile and may answer some of our needs. (10:69)
     What else goes wrong in air defense?  Let's look at engagement of
low altitude threats.  One of the Marine Corps' greatest deficiencies
is the lack of firepower.  We have no Vulcan cannon or Sergeant York
air-defense gun to drive enemy air up into our missile envelopes.
The Stinger missile carried by our Forward Area Air Defense (FAAD)
Battery is a viable threat to any aircraft until flares are used to
decoy it from the intended target.  Flare-reject technology is on the
march, but no production is anticipated before 1989. (9:61)  Stinger
is widely demanded in spite of its shortcomings, but its availability
in numbers is woefully lacking.
     Our improved Hawk anti-air missile system is one of the best in
the world, yet it has no capability against the small cruise missile
target due to both detection and guidance illuminations problems.
Helicopters can utilize terrain to mask themselves from these weapons,
and we also lack sufficient numbers of launch rails to engage large
raids.  We must presently engage identified targets in sequence (this
causes premature saturation of the system), and launchers can't be re-
loaded or transported until empty.  Product improvements in the offing
include incorporation of the RIM-7 (Sea Sparrow missile) into the Hawk
system in order to provide a greater number of quickly loadable missiles
and a fire-control system upgrade to enable simultaneous engagement of
multiple targets.  These improvements are presently in prototype. (17:63)
     How do our fast-movers stack up against attack helicopters and
cruise missiles?  Without the aid of references, I can call upon ex-
perience to dispell all hopes of an optimistic response.  Only the
F/A-18 with its AN/APG-65 radar can reliably detect these low-altitude
targets in time to react.  Furthermore, the actual engagement of any
target at 50 feet is a one-shot opportunity.  Our air-to-air missiles
have severe problems with aerodynamics at launch, guidance, and target
discrimination at these altitudes.  The most reliable forms of attack
are strafe or fragmentation from a general purpose bomb.  Neither of
these options make many points with the friendly forces on the ground.
Hopefully we can detect and engage these targets forward of the FEBA.
     In either case, sustained engagement of heavily armed helicopters
by fixed-wing aircraft can only end in doom for our fighter-attack or
attack aircraft.  Helicopters can blend easily with the terrain, stop
in a hover and turn about their own axis, and land quickly in partial
cover.  The slower speed of the helicopter is an advantage in this
arena as it allows a lighter task-loading for the helicopter pilot and
forces the fixed-wing adversary to constantly overshoot while con-
centrating on ground avoidance.
     One band-aid presently applied to the wound is the fitting of
AIM-9L air-to-air missiles to our AH-1J&T model Cobra helicopters. (3:26)
A notoriously poor low-altitude missile, the AIM-9L will most likely
prove most effective against fixed-wing aggressors.  The incorporation
of Stinger as an air-to-air missile will hopefully provide a more
permanent and reasonable solution to making our helicopters air-to-air
capable and somewhat effective against adversaries of the MI-28 caliber.
     In terms of helicopter performance, only the powerful CH-53 can
begin to compare with the speed and performance of the threat heli-
copters.  An air-to-air version of the MV-22A (JVX) may provide a more
lasting and survivable competitor for the Soviet attack helicopters.
Time and prototype engineering will tell.  What is important today is
that we recognize a serious problem for what it is and make rational
decisions upon which to build tomorrow's answer.  Grabbing at existing
technology and off-the-shelf systems in panic becomes the final answer
all too often.
     Sound doctrine exists in our plan for air defense.  The principles
of destruction in-depth, mutual support, and centralized coordination
with decentralized control form the backbone of our air defense system.
Leakage in the low-altitude band discussed here occurs primarily as a
recently evolved weakness in our mutual support capability.  A good
doctrinal application at this point is to develop the most permanent
solution or solutions that are humanly possible.  Then we must have
the patience and intestinal fortitude to await their actual incorpora-
tion into our air defense arsenals.  Remember ... realization that a
problem exists is the only way we can ever reach a solution.  Under-
standing the problem is the key to the formulation of a good solution.
     For the moment let us deal with this problem by establishing some
reasonable milestones.  Keep in mind that our new ideas won't become
reality until the 1990's due to the nature of the procurement cycle--
all the more reason to make accurate equipment requests.
     What equipment is needed?  Obviously we have identified a detec-
tion problem.  I heavily favor airborne early warning platforms based
upon proven performance and highly successful past experiences.  Their
advantages of flexibility, rapid deployment, and mutual supportability 
justify their cost and upkeep.  Less expensive alternatives include
tethered balloons with good look-down radar and/or infra-red and elec-
tronic detection devices.  Perhaps all that is needed is a lightweight,
forward-deployable, early warning radar network that can advantage
terrain.  Whatever systems or combinations of systems we choose, the
most critical standards to be met should be maintenance and durability
specifications.  We possess too many frail end items which occupy 90
percent of our time in maintenance as opposed to learning how to prop-
erly employ them. (12:25)
     To deal with the engagement and destruction of the attack heli-
copter and cruise missile we must apply our very best effort.  Making
foresight, technology, and budget come together to produce a quality
product that answers the requirement is a monumental task.  Putting it
off, however, will only make the end result more expensive, less effec-
tive, and too late.  I envision three major equipment requirements as
necessary to defeat the threat.  They are:
         1.   A high quality anti-aircraft gun
         2.   An "air-superiority" helicopter
         3.   A better performing low-altitude missile
     Briefly, I would suggest a 3Omm gun that is self-propelled and
capable of engaging both air targets and enemy armor.  If technologically
possible, this could be the most useful weapon the Marine Corps has
seen in years in term  of versatility, economy, and provision for defense
in depth.
     To my way of thinking, the MV-22A (JVX) combines the best of both
worlds in the search for a worthy Soviet helicopter hunter/killer.  Its
fixed-wing configuration dash speed in unison with its helicopter
flight performance characteristics makes it a prime candidate to assume
the role of the world's premier attack helicopter.
     Everyone needs a better missile, and simply put, the search should
continue.  The demanding requirements placed upon a missile at low
altitude usually carry over to improve performance throughout the
flight envelope.  A penny spent here could be a nickel earned.
     There are several additional actions to be taken in the near-term
that will pay dividends for some time to come (and keep us occupied
constructively while we wait out hardware procurement).  They are
familiar tasks which receive far too little attention.  First we should
continue to evolve sound doctrine and show the professionalism to de-
velop innovative tactics within that doctrine.  We should combine the
parts of the FMFM 5-_  series and become familiar with its most minute
details.  Then we should collocate our air warfare, ground combat ele-
ments, and combat service support units to the greatest degree possible.
This action will enable us to perform the single most important task
of any successful military force.  Now we can train and train and train
some more. (12:27)
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